words Claire Hazelton
It’s a Wednesday and I’m meeting a good friend for dinner. Due to messy housemates (week-old washing piled high in the sink, dining table invisible under leftovers and laundry) eating and cooking in is not an option, so, as poor unemployed graduates, we opt to treat ourselves, find a restaurant and drink and dine over a shared main and tap water. In my bag is a sad, half eaten bag of Tesco nuts, just in case we are still hungry after. We pray that there’ll be complimentary breadsticks with the table.
Our journey begins on Walworth Road, in between our two respective houses and we begin migrating (automatically might I add) towards Camberwell, away from London’s infamous Elephant and Castle, home to London’s most dangerous roundabout and not much else. It’s raining, as usual, so we’re huddled under Helena’s small umbrella as we come to Camberwell Green. Luckily, we’re local, so we know what our options are for good food and coffee here.
We wander past Spanish/Caribbean Angels and Gypsies of Church Street Hotel, a place we visited when we had a little more money to our names, and consider it as an option but decide against it, imagining splitting the small portions between us. Instead we head towards Johanssons, a lovely Scandinavian café/restaurant/wine bar I used to frequent to check my emails when plus-net was failing to set my internet up.
Upon entering, we’re greeted with a smile and told to sit wherever we wish. They patiently wait and laugh with us as we deliberate over whether to sit at the table in the corner by the patio doors leading into their beautiful garden or at the table nearest to the fireplace. Finally deciding on the first option we settle down to look at the menu. There is an extremely varied choice of pescetarian dishes here, suiting myself and Helena perfectly. A plate of toasted ciabatta, marinated olives and pesto/basil oil arrives at our table before we’ve made our minds up as to what to eat. We devour it, briefly commenting to each other between mouthfuls at the exquisiteness of the pesto/basil oil: rich in flavour and gone in an instant.
Still looking through the menu, Helena says ‘Mmmm, sea bass…’. I turn the page to see what she’s reading. The sea bass is a main. It’s either a main to share or a starter each. The salmon platter also becomes an option; it’s what I had last time I was here – mouthwateringly succulent, cured salmon drizzled with dill sauce sticks in the mind. Peter, the owner comes to say hello and recommends the sea bass, which he got from Billingsgate that very morning at 5am. No fish could come fresher in London. We’re sold.
Other options on the menu for meat-eaters (and veggies!) include pan-friend fillet of mackerel with reindeer terrine served with lingonberry compote and dill sauce (a Scandinavian feast!) and warm goats cheese and beetroot salad with toasted pine nuts, walnuts, green beans and honey and mustard dressing and pan-fried pork loin, caramelized apples, wild mushroom sauce and roasted new potatoes.
Our sea bass comes whole, roasted on the bone with a side of wilted spinach, new potatoes and perfectly tender wild asparagus. We don’t speak for about half an hour as we pick it apart and eat as much of the flesh as possible, dipping it in the dill butter. The extremely pleasant service staff come in to check on us occasionally to make sure there’s no draft from the patio and to top up our water (when I was here for breakfast a while ago, I had a lovely conversation about mittens with one of the waitresses). I can’t help but feel like I’ve walked into someone’s home and been welcomed as if I were part of the family.
Surprisingly, our budget evening out has resulted in, as agreed by Helena, the best meal either of us has ever had in London. And, although one main shared between two is enough for now, we can’t say no to ordering desert too, on top of planning our return and future orders (I’m eying up the poached duck egg served with smoked salmon on toast for next time). As they’re having a quiet evening, Peter brings us out a platter of their deserts for us to try from their rotating cake specials, including a moist carrot cake, rich chocolate brownie contrasted with a fresh mint leaf, peach cobbler and ice cream. We’ve been spoilt, but we’re full! Eating as much as we can, we take the rest home in napkins (the thought of leaving any of these beautifully crafted cake samples behind is unbearable).
Leaving the warm comfort of Johanssons candle-lit interior, we disappear back under our umbrella into the rain. A just-incase bag of nuts won’t be necessary for our next trip back. When I do return about a week later, I end up staying for about four hours, sipping coffee in the company of other writers, artists and locals to whom Johansson’s is their own little home-grown gem. The quiet and peaceful dining spaces are a much-welcomed contrast to London’s usually loud and overcrowded food-scene. This is the perfect place to think, unwind, rest, talk, read, meet and date (and of course eat and drink). Their garden is also home to an impressively large and fruitful fig tree whose canopy shelters visitors from all London noise and smog.
Although Camberwell doesn’t have its own tube station, Johanssons is a very short walk away from Oval station and has direct bus links to much of central London. However far away you live though, this is a restaurant that is worth walking to in the rain, travelling to from North London and changing tube lines and bus routes for. It is quite simply one of the best London has to offer in food and friendliness.
On the 3rd and 4th August, Johanssons will be hosting two Swedish chefs who will be cooking a 10-course meal of ingredients sourced from Sweden (and not available in England). Swedish beer will also be paired with each dish. Places for both days are limited to 20, so book fast via www.johanssons.co.uk
Johanssons Restaurant Wine Bar and Delicatessen, London SE5
words Claire Hazelton
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